Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kill and Eat

     I have to thank my good friend Father Gee for introducing me to the wonderful world of smoking meat in a real smoker. It was about ten years ago when we set up a brand new smoker, conditioned it, and thus began a marvelous odyssey into carefully crafting a delicious meal of smoked pulled pork and beef brisket. What really made it for me, though, was reading through the books of Exodus and Leviticus, specifically the texts that refer to the multitude of sacrifices that were offered by the people at God’s command. I distinctly remember reading through these passages and having vivid awareness not only of the intense detail that accompanied the worship of Israel but even of the aromas that must have surrounded the Tent of Meeting. I had an actual thought that this was a marvelous barbecue (without the pork, of course, but more on that later!). The priests were, of course, only male, so it also reminded me of a group of guys sitting around a charcoal fire with loads of meat roasting over it.
Food has always been a part of human history. From Genesis to the book of Revelations, food is interwoven not only into ordinary life, but even at great moments of God’s interaction with those whom He called. After telling the newly created first man to be fruitful and multiply, God then points out the food he is to eat. The fall of Adam and Eve was based upon a violation of God’s command about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The human race fell by eating wrongly, in disobedience. Sacrifices and covenants from then on were intimately tied to eating: Noah ate of the fruits of the earth upon leaving the Ark; Abraham was blessed with a child after offering the food of hospitality to the three visitors (God in disguise?); I already mentioned the sacrifices that attended upon the great Sinai covenant; fast forwarding to the New Testament, Jesus often ate with those with whom He shared the Gospel, from Simon the Leper, to Levi, to Lazarus, Mary and Martha. He then brought the old Covenant to fulfillment at the Last Supper, when He gave His very Body and Blood as the food and drink, the Sacrifice of His very Self.

The dietary laws of the Jewish people became a point of contention in the early Church as the Gospel spread to Gentiles, who did not have religious qualms about eating certain foods. Saint Peter learned that he should not discriminate against non-Jews when it came to preaching the Gospel from a vision of a huge sheet filled with all sorts of animals, reptiles and birds, and a voice that told him to “kill and eat”. Peter replied, “I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” The Lord replied, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” It took three times for Peter to get the point. The message of the Gospel? What one eats has nothing to do with salvation; it is “what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.”

And the book of Revelation, following upon the imagery given by Jesus, describes heaven as a huge wedding banquet. In heaven, we will feast upon food provided for us by God Himself, who will have us “sit down at table” and be served, if we served Him on earth.

These connections are not minor. God is trying to tell us so many things about human life in these texts. Human life is good, indeed very good, for He created us. Food keeps us alive, and life is good. Having a family meal and providing food and hospitality to guests are sacred events. Why God prohibited certain foods is a matter of debate. Pork has been associated with disease, especially when not cooked enough. I’m not sure why shellfish are prohibited by Jewish law, but that was so as well. With the words of Christ to guide us, and the experience of the early Church, we learn that God no longer has a problem with certain foods and no longer bans them. Perhaps His goal was to provide a unique culture to His people, including dietary laws, to keep them separate from the surrounding cultures. Once universal salvation was preached and accomplished by Jesus, such a separation was no longer required. From a personal point of view, I’m very grateful that food is no longer an issue for salvation, since I love smoked pork, clams on the half shell, and sautéed shrimp. Who am I kidding? I love just about every food, and have overcome my childhood aversion to mushrooms, especially after my first experience with veal marsala, smothered in mushrooms.

What strikes me as strange, of course, is the modern day return to dietary restrictions. From government dictates to the latest dietary fad to self-help gurus, we hear constantly about the harmful effects of various foods. Saint Paul had something to say about such restrictions, as he counseled Saint Timothy to beware of those who forbid certain foods which should be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:3). Anyone who knows me knows I am not exactly the model of physical perfection. I happen to love food and a wide variety thereof. But the new dogma is disturbing for a variety of reasons. There is a sense of superiority coming from those who espouse such restrictions. Have you ever had someone frown at your choice of a certain kind of food because it was not “healthy”? Over eating is unhealthy. A big mac once in awhile won’t affect your salvation or your personal worth (even though I’m not a fan of big macs for other reasons). Being temperate is virtuous; being abstemious thinking it makes one a better person is unchristian.

So that being said, I have seasoned my smoker and am ready to start the madness. It’s huge, and ready for a pile of pork shoulders and brisket, and maybe some ribs and a smoked chicken along the way. Anyone who lives near me may receive a call about a large helping of freshly smoked pulled pork. With all sincere respect to the legitimate dietary restrictions of others, especially the Jewish people, I will be honoring my fathers in the faith by tending the fire, creating a pleasing fragrance, and giving thanks to God Who provides food in abundance.